Hank Vegas

Country-noir pining from Macon-based combo

Hank Vegas (L-R): Justin Smith, Rob Evans, John Neff (seated) and Chad Evans. Photo by Adam Smith

Hank Vegas (L-R): Justin Smith, Rob Evans, John Neff (seated) and Chad Evans. Photo by Adam Smith

A few years ago, Chad Evans drifted down to south Georgia, where he tended his grandfather’s ranch and lived in an old motor home that had been stripped of its engine. It was the perfect vehicle—a ready-made metaphor—for the obsessive “self-journey” that informs his songwriting.

“I was trying to figure out what to do with my life, with just a grill and a bottle of whiskey among the palmettos and rattlesnakes,” he says. “That’s when I bought my first guitar.”

The Hispanic ranch-hands liked his strumming, as did the late-night crowd on the coast, where he roistered under the alias “Hank Vegas.” “The name started as an alter ego,” Evans says, just one more larky expression of his arch, high-camp sensibility.

With the addition of guitarist Rob Evans (no relation) and bassist Justin Smith, Hank Vegas now signifies one of indie rock’s most compelling new bands, known for literate, wistful-as-woodsmoke lyrics and vocals that are polychromatic to the point of iridescence. The Macon-based group’s debut album, The Things You Are was produced by Athens maestro David Barbe, who layered lush effects and nubby textures to sculpt a bas-relief soundscape you could trip over, in nine songs, including “Crazy with Fever,” “Summer Frown,” and “Bikini Summer.”

“A lower-class romantic guy who seduces the debutantes on St. Simons” inspired the latter, Chad Evans explains. It’s also a meditation on identity that gives the collection its title: “the things you are” get determined “by the things you love.”

The things this band loves are as changing and colorful as a kaleidoscope.

“I believe in treating every day like Halloween,” Chad says, scratching the reddish-brown stubble on his jaw like the philosophy major he once was. “Trying on different clothes, different roles every day. Most people subscribe to whatever the first person who knocks on the door tells them, whether that person is an insurance salesman or an evangelist. I believe in the self-journey without preconceived notions.”

His elegiac “scratch vocals”, meant as a guide during recording (rather than as the finished product), were used on the album. Normally, technically refined recordings replace these place-holding tracks, but not this time. The singer’s country-noir coloratura finds an echo in the pedal-steel contributions of John Neff, a Barbe cohort who plays with the Drive-By Truckers.

“One reason the sound is so tactile is that we built it up with all kinds of subtle things, from chromatic bells to a ‘singing bowl’ from Nepal, to the Dart keyboard, which, when you hit a note, wavers, buzzes and sounds like it’s crapping out because it’s so old and banged around,” says Rob. “We wanted character. And we love when Chad pines.”

Character and pining. If Hank Vegas could be summed up in two words, those might work. These characters yearn with endearing flair.

Widening the corral

“Their musicianship is gritty, with a shot of whiskey,” says Brad Broadrick, an Atlanta promoter who’s booked the band at the Star Bar.  “Hank Vegas’ singer is reminiscent of the early days of Michael Stipe, and the guitar playing has a dose of Slim Dunlap from The Replacements.”

At first, Hank Vegas and the White Lightnin’ (Burt Reynolds figures prominently in the band’s iconography) operated in the “alt.country” category. Lately though, Hank Vegas—minus the hooch handle—has added more Sturm und Drang to its strum and twang.

“We’ve been influenced by the blues and the church and country music,” Chad says. “But we live in a global world. We’re not trying to do a pastiche of several genres because everything happens at once and as soon as a genre is born, it dies …”

Here, one secret of the group’s emotional resonance reveals itself: Chad Evans’ quizzical spin. This Dixie Dylan is prone to gnomic, inscrutable pronouncements, prefaced with, “I’m lying, but this is the most truthful thing I’ve said all night…” Somewhere in those half-audible, conversational loop-de-loops are flashes of brilliance, and the band’s impressionistic lyrics serve as the most form-fitting framework for his musings. He is that rare individual who can expound on postmodernism without sounding pretentious because he is so sincere—and so Southern. He wouldn’t feel alien in a Flannery O’Connor short story.

“I think his off-kilter, stream-of-consciousness way of thinking is surely a big part of why those songs are the way they are,” Barbe says. “And there’s that Macon thing. All of the members come from there.”

The band members (all 30ish), who recorded next-door to R.E.M. long enough to mooch Michael Stipe’s organic bean dip, synthesize the best qualities of downhome southern rock and jangly new wave, both of which claim deep, gnarled roots in Macon.

“They take sounds that have seeped into them and make something completely their own,” says Kirk West, the Allman Brothers Band’s tour manager. “So the songs sound very familiar, but original, full of energy.”

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